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14 March 2024

Why Reform’s rise is deadly for the Conservatives

Rishi Sunak’s party cannot afford to have competition for the dwindling pro-Leave electorate.

By David Gauke

The inevitable happened. Lee Anderson joined Reform UK, becoming its first MP. It was inevitable once Anderson smeared Sadiq Khan as being under the control of Islamists and subsequently refused to apologise. At that point, there was no way back to the Tories. As I argued a few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak was right to withdraw the whip, but the decision would come at a political cost.

As it happened, the Anderson defection was not even the most embarrassing Conservative story of the day in question (a donor’s racist remarks about Diane Abbott win that particular prize, exacerbated by Sunak’s hesitant response). The parliamentary party took the former news with resigned equanimity.  Anderson’s defection was already priced in.

It was, nonetheless, a good day for Reform. They have an MP, they got some news coverage (and not just on GB News), and reportedly attracted an extra thousand members.  It was just not quite as good a day as it might have been. The defection press conference was underwhelming; Richard Tice – Reform’s leader – looked out of his depth as soon as he faced difficult questions in interviews; and Anderson was evidently not enjoying himself. Somehow, it did not really make the weather.

On the face of it, Reform has a substantial political opportunity. The Conservatives are unpopular and their voters look very similar to Reform’s. Sunak does not appeal to the party’s natural supporters. And there are a range of issues where the Government is failing to meet the expectations of many on the right. Immigration is high; anti-Israel marches are prominent; and Brexit benefits remain elusive.

It is true to say that Reform has risen in the polls. In November, it was on 7 per cent, today it is on 12 per cent – ahead of the Liberal Democrats and half the Tories’ share.

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This should be put in some perspective. Ukip polled above 15 per cent in late 2014 and even at the 2015 general election – when smaller parties usually get squeezed – won 12.6 per cent. Reform may achieve some kind of breakthrough in May’s local elections but, at present, it is an irrelevance at local government level. Its recent record at parliamentary by-elections is poor. In the autumn of 2014, Ukip won 59.7 per cent and 42.1 per cent in the Clacton and Rochester by-elections. Admittedly, this was with formerly Tory incumbents seeking re-election having defected. But even in Heywood & Middleton, where this was not the case, Ukip obtained 38.7 per cent of the vote.  

In contrast, Reform made a real effort in Wellingborough but still only won 13 per cent and finished third (in the 2015 general election, Ukip finished second with 19 per cent). In Rochdale – with Labour dropping their candidate and the Tories and Liberal Democrats putting in minimal effort – they came sixth with 6.3 per cent (in 2015, Ukip finished second with 18.8 per cent). As the pollster James Kanagasooriam pointed out, if Reform under-performs in the Blackpool South by-election, there is a strong case to be made that there is a potential systematic polling error overstating their support.

Anderson’s defection might give the party a boost and the next few opinion polls will be studied closely but Reform will still be a long way away from Ukip’s heyday in 2014-15. It lacks a charismatic leader and a clear transactional offer. Back then, Ukip could argue that a vote for it increased the chance of the UK leaving the EU, which in turn gave the country the chance to control immigration. History has not been kind to every aspect of that argument, but it was persuasive to many at the time.  

Now, the purpose of voting Reform is apparently to punish the Tories. There is certainly an audience for this argument, but voters may conclude – and the polls support this contention – that this is best done by voting Labour.

Reform is less of an electoral force than Ukip was nine or ten years ago. That does not make it an irrelevance, however, in terms of the thinking within the Conservative Party. In 2015, the Conservatives could win a majority of the vote with Ukip receiving over 12 per cent of the vote. But that was a Tory party that was a broad coalition with 4.5 million voters who would go on to vote Remain in the EU referendum and who have now mostly gone elsewhere. A party that seeks to be the Brexit Party cannot afford to have competition for the dwindling Leave electorate.

It is an argument that will be used by some within the Tories to leave Reform as little space as possible by moving towards them. This strategy worked in 2019 but usually results in emphasising the very issues – immigration, crime, the fear of Islamism – which drive people to Reform in the first place. The next stage of the argument, which we are beginning to hear, is that the right should be united and that the Conservatives and Reform should come together. It is an argument, I fear, that will hold some sway in any post-election Conservative leadership race

And here is the irony. Reform – a populist party supposedly standing up for ordinary people in the real world – is unlikely to have much of an impact with ordinary people in the real world at the next election. But within the Westminster bubble its influence could be profound.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is already irrelevant]

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